• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Math Geek Mom: Random Changes in History

Important changes over the long run.


February 26, 2015

The study of Chaos Theory, a fascinating sub-field of math, was born out of the recognition that small changes can have large effects. It is often illustrated by the story of a butterfly flapping its wings thus leading to a tornado thousands of miles away. Indeed, this entire line of study was the result of a realization that rounding numbers earlier than expected can lead to results from a computer program that greatly diverge from those with no rounding. I found myself thinking of this recently as my course in Higher Geometries studied fractals (derived from equations that account for chaos.) On almost the same day, a colleague told me about her newest project. She is a History professor who wants to explore alternative versions of history, versions that might have occurred if only small changes had been made in where we started. She told me that this is sometimes called “counterfactual history.”

I sometimes think of this in terms of my own life; how would it have been different if only small changes had occurred at important moments? For example, a doctor at a walk-in clinic got his diagnosis incredibly wrong when I went to him complaining of how I felt early in the semester in the fall of 1990. When I explained how I felt, a description that included getting sick early in the morning, he obviously thought I must be pregnant, but without asking me if I could be, he kept asking me “what test do you want me to run?” To this day, I wish I had replied with something like “this is definitely a chi-square test”, but I was too sick to think of that. Luckily, he didn’t figure out what was wrong, since it was the end of August of that year, and my health insurance started on September 1st. Thanks to his ignorance, I was able to get health insurance before I needed to be admitted to the Cleveland Clinic for brain surgery that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Thanks to his ignorance, I am alive (and not broke) today.

And what if I had not said exactly what I said to the man who was to become my husband? What if I had not invited him to a party a few months later? What if one of those other adoptions had worked out, and the baby who became our daughter spent her early years in county foster care?  (Just the thought had me bawling at the recent movie “Annie.”) Of course, there are other questions that are not so positive; what if my mother, and especially, my sister, had been diagnosed with cancer early enough to save their lives? Looking back at history, there seems to be an endless supply of “what ifs.”

My history professor colleague is attempting to look at this issue and have some fun (and invite her students to have some fun) at the same time. She has created an alternative “Sims” universe in an attempt to explore what would happen if small changes were made to history. Right now, she is working on a model of a peasant village in the France of Louis XIV. When I asked her about her project, she explained;

“My two week old YouTube channel focuses on historical “reenactment” using a video simulation game called “The Sims.” This game lets the player design and build a small world and populate it with simulated people with appearance, skills, and personalities of their own choice. I’m using it to create personalities, conditions, and institutions similar to those in the past and watch what happens. At the moment I’m recreating France during the reign of Louis XIV and trying to simulate peasant life. I hope to attract interest in History and to develop assignments in which students can research real historical figures and/or institutions and then bring them to life.”

Looking back on your own lives, what are the moments of “butterflies flapping their wings” that led to important events that define you as people, as parents and as professors?



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